Highly trained, well-paid preschool teachers with low-student ratios, clean, safe classrooms with blocks, playdough, art supplies and outdoor spaces where kids can run and play could be key to closing the racial achievement gap, according to a new Rutgers University study.
The June policy analysis by the university’s National Institute of Early Education Research concludes that preschools have more influence on the academic trajectory of children of color than previously thought — a finding unfortunately timed with the rolling back of many preschool initiatives due to dire budget cuts amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Co-authors Allison Friedman-Krauss and Steven Barnett approached their research for “Access to High-Quality Early Education and Racial Equity” with one question in mind: “What would happen if all children attend pre-K programs that are of uniformly high quality?” By studying children in programs that provided such quality in Boston and Tulsa, Oklahoma, they found that the preschool experience significantly narrowed reading and math skills gaps between Black and white children by the onset of kindergarten. Just one year of high quality preschool made a difference, the study found, virtually eliminating the racial reading gap and cutting the math gap in half.
“When we look at the impact of high-quality preschool programs on different racial or ethnic groups, we do see consistently across the board that there tends to be greater impacts for African American and Hispanic children than for white children,” said Friedman-Krauss, an assistant research professor at Rutgers.
Still, even in the best of times, Black children are less likely to attend amply equipped preschools with small classroom sizes and trained teachers. And state budget cuts in the wake of the coronavirus could make it that much harder for children of color to enroll in quality early education programs. During the Great Recession that began at the end of 2007, preschool standards dropped and enrollment fell, as did government spending on early childhood education.
Friedman-Krauss and Barnett fear the same could happen during the current economic downturn caused by a pandemic that has coincided with widespread Black Lives Matter protests. As the nation grapples with a history of racial injustice, they say it’s imperative that Black children from all income brackets be given the resources to excel in preschool.
Federally funded and state-level preschool programs typically target low-income children, but Barnett — who is senior co-director and founder of the National Institute of Early Education Research — said lack of access to top-tier preschools doesn’t just help impoverished Black children but those from a variety of economic backgrounds. African American children generally have difficulty accessing quality preschools, making the issue just as much about race as it is about class.
“This is one of the reasons that the universal preschool approach has shockingly large gains,” he said. “There are big gains linked to racial equality, and this is what Black Lives Matter is, to some extent, about.”
Previous research has shown average preschool programs have little effect on closing the racial achievement gap by fourth grade. But an analysis of high quality preschool programs and fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress scores found gains for Black students, including a nearly 6% increase in math and a nearly 4% increase in reading. The more successful preschools had staff educated in the multiple elements of early childhood development, reasonable numbers of students, and two or three teachers in the classroom.
Universal preschool might have the potential to foster greater racial equality in education, but it remains the exception rather than the rule in the United States. States such as Vermont, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Iowa, Georgia, Florida, Wisconsin, Alabama and New Jersey offer universal pre-K to their entire constituencies or to large parts of them. Cities including New York, Washington, Boston, San Antonio, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, do the same.
Last year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared his commitment to universal preschool, vowing a multi-year phase-in together with support from lawmakers. Newsom set aside nearly $2 billion in the 2019-20 budget for early childhood education and related services, including the building of more preschools. But recent cuts to the state budget due to the pandemic have eliminated much of his proposed investment.
“In California, we just took a big step backwards because part of the budget included 20,000 low-income children who were going to receive preschool,” said Scott Moore, CEO of Kidango, which operates more than 50 preschool and early childhood education centers in the East Bay. “And now, that won’t happen.”
Census data shows that close to 40% of California children between the ages of 3 and 5 aren’t enrolled in preschool or kindergarten, and that could worsen under the current budget plan that eliminates state-subsidized slots.
“We know it’s the most formative time of their development in their lives, and it’s when the achievement gap is created,” Moore said. “Yet, we’re still not doing what we need to do in order to provide the kind of equal opportunity that children of all incomes and races deserve.”
Caroline Danielson, policy director and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said rather than attend preschool or day care, some parents prefer keeping their children at home with relatives or family friends. But many have no choice because they can’t afford the expense.
“California has limited access to publicly supported preschool, and that’s a problem for low-income families because preschool is expensive if it’s going to be good quality,” Danielson said. “In an expensive county in California, the median cost of preschool is like, $25,000 a year, and that’s more than people can afford.”
The Golden State is far from the only one in this predicament. In their report, Barnett and Friedman-Krauss note that the nation as a whole is “hamstrung by limited public funding” to increase access to high quality early childhood education, particularly for Black children.
And even in states with universal preschool, quality is not guaranteed.
Florida’s universal pre-K program, for example, has scored low marks for quality, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s 2018 “State of Preschool” report. The report found that the state did not meet educational benchmarks or provide adequate funding for high-caliber preschools.
Conversely, New York City’s universal pre-K program has earned high marks, an indication, according to the researchers, that the preschools are better positioned to make a difference for children of color.
“New Jersey’s program is an example of that,” Barnett said. “It started with 30-plus cities with the highest concentrations of poverty, but if you live there, you get to go. It doesn’t matter if you make half a million dollars a year; you get to go. Low quality simply was not permitted to exist. If you fall behind the bar, you’re gone. It really is that simple.”
While high-quality universal preschool benefits Black and Hispanic children, it also offers advantages to white students, Barnett’s research has found. And when the achievement gap closes, every child wins — with gains in social skills, executive function, and, possibly, bilingualism. Children in racially integrated quality preschools may also behave with more empathy and understanding than their counterparts who don’t attend such schools.
“We see kids interacting in ways that are less influenced by adult views of how they ought to see other children,” Barnett said.
Yet ensuring that universal preschools are racially integrated is one hurdle early childhood education advocates have yet to overcome. Most children attend school near their homes, and U.S. neighborhoods continue to be racially segregated due to the nation’s history of redlining.
“Where do families look for preschool typically?” Danielson asked. “In their neighborhoods, where there are constrained resources, where there may be difficulties getting enough preschool facilities if you live in a poor area.”
Barnett acknowledged that achieving racial integration in preschool could be challenging due to the legacy of racially and economically segregated neighborhoods across the country. He suggested that housing policy might be able to better address this problem than preschools can.
But without funding, high quality universal preschools — racially diverse or not — won’t become a reality.
“There will always be parents who will send their kids to exclusive private preschools,” Barnett said. “But if we really do set a high quality bar for universal programs, there will not be that many people who opt out. We have to educate parents about the quality, but we also have to ensure that it is uniformly high quality.”
Nadra Nittle is a freelance reporter and can be reached at [email protected].